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Volume 54, Number 3May/June 2003

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Cairo Cats

Written by Annemarie Schimmel
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

When the British orientalist E. W. Lane lived in Cairo in the 1830's, he was quite amazed to see, every afternoon, a great number of cats gathering in the garden of the High Court, where people would bring baskets full of food for them. In this way, he was told, the qadi (judge) fulfilled obligations dating from the 13th-century rule of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. That cat-loving monarch had endowed a "cats' garden" where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and liked. In the course of time, the place had been sold and resold, changed and rebuilt; yet the law required that the sultan's endowment should be honored, and who better than the qadi to execute the king's will and take care of the cats?

The tradition continues. To this very day, every visitor to the Islamic world is aware of the innumerable cats in the streets of Cairo—and of Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus and many other cities.

Yet of all Middle Eastern cities, it is still Cairo where cats seem to be most beloved, for here the traditions regarding cats long predate Islam. In ancient Egypt the cat was among the most important deities: The highest god, Ra, was sometimes addressed as "Supreme Tomcat," and in the Book of the Dead, which dates to the second millennium BC, the cat was also equated with the sun—and when we admire the slim, golden, Nubian cats, we can well understand this! Legend tells that in times immemorial the sun god Ra, in the shape of an enormous cat, fought against and overcame darkness manifesting itself as a powerful serpent.

In ancient Egypt people worshiped not only the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet but, more importantly, the gentler cat-headed Bastet, whose temple was located in Bubastis in the Nile Delta. Here, special priests devoted themselves to the cat's services, living there according to a strict code of behavior. We do not know at which point in history the Egyptians succeeded in taming cats. They may have discovered them in Nubia, where the cat is still regarded as a bearer of good luck. Soon they must have found how useful these animals were: Who else would have been able to kill, or at least scare away, the mice that threatened the greatest wealth of ancient Egypt, the grain stored in the granaries? It follows almost naturally that the first story about the war between cats and mice originated in ancient Egypt, and was told and retold all over the world in poetry and in prose.

The ancient Egyptians did everything to make their cats happy: They were groomed and bathed, anointed with fragrant oils and of course fed with excellent food. For a cat's life was considered as important as a human life, and even during famines some food was apportioned to cats.

Naturally, even in Egypt the beloved pets had to die at some point. The death of a cat was a cause of tremendous grief for the owner who, if his wealth allowed it, would embalm the animal and wrap it in fine linen perfumed with cedar oil. Great cat funerals took place in Bubastis: They were solemn ceremonies in which all those whose cats had died participated, and to show their grief and sorrow people were even known to shave off their eyebrows. The animal was buried just like a human being, and the owner often put some objects into the grave so that his pet could play with them in the Otherworld; even little bowls for milk have been found in the cats' cemetery.

We do not know how and when the Arabs became aquainted with cats. One thing is certain, though: The Bedouins do not like cats, as becomes clear from stories and proverbs of Bedouin origin. As nomads, they did not own granaries or other places to store food; hence, there was no need for an animal that might scare away or eat the greedy mice. Rather, the ghul, the desert demon whose name has given us the English "ghoul," was thought to appear in a cat's shape to frighten the camels.

But in the urban areas of Arabia and of other countries that became Islamized in the seventh and eighth centuries, cats were companions of pious men and women, and they were loved by scholars not only for their beauty and elegance but also for practical purposes. Arab poets and litterateurs wrote eulogies on their cats or described them in grand, hymnic, rhyming sentences, for they protected their precious libraries from the assault of mice.

In Cairo we find even more aspects of feline importance. Up to E. W. Lane's days, the caravans of pilgrims going to the sacred precincts of Makkah took a number of cats with them, though we do not know whether this was a reminiscence of folk tales about the Prophet's love of cats, or the feeling that the gentle creatures might bring good luck. Or were the pilgrims afraid lest mice and, even worse, rats destroy whatever foodstuff the caravan carried? Whatever the reason behind this custom may have been, these Egyptian cats were looked after by a woman, the "mother of cats," who was responsible for their well-being.

Today, as these photographs prove, the mystique of the cat is still very much alive in the Egyptian environment.

Lorraine Chittock ([email protected]) is a free-lance photographer and writer who lived in Cairo for seven years with three cats befire moving to Kenya in 1998. She is now traveling around the United States with two canine companions while writing about her walking adventures in Africa.

Annemarie Schimmel was a revered and prolific scholar of Islam and a gifted teacher who taught at the Universities of Marburg, Ankara and Bonn and, for 25 years, at the Harvard University. Besides producing many original books and papers, she translated others, including works of poetry, from Persian, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto and Punjabi into both English and German, lectrued in more than six languages and published more than 40 works after her retirement in 1993. She dedicated her life to fostering a better understanding of Islam and the Muslim world in the West, and served as an important bridge for inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. She died at age 80 in January of this year, honored both within and beyond the world of Islam, and much mourned by colleagues and students.

This article appeared on pages 34-37 of the May/June 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2003 images.